Books

An Account of Aarushi that Leaves Us Unsettled, But No Closer to the Truth

Avirook Sen

Avirook Sen
Aarushi
Penguin 2015

One hundred and twenty-five pages into Aarushi, his damning account of the trial of two Delhi-region dentists accused of killing their 13-year daughter, the journalist Avirook Sen pauses to describe, with great care and precision, the filthy state of the Ghaziabad courthouse where the trial was held.

The author has already finished recounting the gory murders of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj, a middle-aged domestic servant whose body was found nearby. But it is only at this point in the book – describing drains clotted with excrement and courthouse steps glazed with slime – that Sen’s voice suddenly begins to sound real, so real that he may as well be standing right next to you.

Make no mistake: The writer has observed the legal system at close range, and he wants to scrape it off the bottom of his shoe.

Assigned to cover the trial for the Mumbai Mirror, Sen struck up an acquaintance with the defendants, Rajesh and Nupur Talwar, who provided him with documents related to the case. Aarushi, an examination of the shambolic investigation that led to their convictions, aims to fully communicate his disgust to the reader. In this, he largely succeeds.

From the first moments after Aarushi’s body was found, her throat slit and her skull crushed, investigators and police screwed up. At first it seemed more negligent than malicious. Reporters and curiosity-seekers were allowed to roam the crime scene, generating such confusion that, incredibly, the second body wasn’t discovered for a full day. While the Talwars took their daughter’s body to be cremated, family friends were allowed to clean the apartment, wiping away fingerprints the killers might have left behind.

What happened next was nastier. The top investigator declared at a press conference, without presenting evidence, that the Talwars had discovered their daughter in Hemraj’s embrace and killed her to protect the family’s honour. News channels allowed this narrative to metastasize so quickly that it crowded out the available facts. One television anchor, Sen tells us, actually went on air after dipping his hands in red paint.

Police portrayed the suspects as members of a decadent overclass who amused themselves at sex parties, and implied that their daughter was following in their footsteps. To bolster their case, police leaked the girl’s SMSes and emails (“Hmm u hate me… I now ma fault m such a frekin slut”) which were then published widely, presented as evidence that she was sexually promiscuous.

If this thinly supported story was lapped up by the press, it was partly because it played into the class biases of a conservative public. Aarushi was part of the first generation of young Indians growing up on social media, and she related to her parents with a loose informality, as if they were friends. All this, spilled out as part of a febrile 24-hour news cycle, still had the capacity to shock.

Sen does a good job cataloguing investigative and prosecutorial errors: The mislabeling of a pillowcase stained with Hemraj’s blood, which could have pointed to the involvement of a visiting servant; the contamination or loss of a DNA swab that should have settled the question of whether Aarushi was raped before she was killed; the doctor who changed his testimony to assert that Aarushi’s “vaginal opening was found prominently wide open,” but who had, Sen reports, never before performed an autopsy on a woman’s body.

So why, given the failings of the justice system, doesn’t Aarushi serve as a satisfying correction of the record?

One reason is that it doesn’t offer much new evidence. The alternate theory advanced in the book – that the visiting servant, Krishna, surprised the girl in her bedroom and then killed her and Hemraj – rests too heavily on testimony given under the influence of sodium pentathol, lie detectors and “brain-mapping,” a technology that has yet to be seriously peer-reviewed or widely accepted as evidence.

Another is that Sen does not win our confidence as a narrator. Though he capably points out the failures of investigating officers and their experts, he also seems to curl his lip at them. Witnesses for the prosecution are portrayed as paan-chewing oafs. The judge is a rube obsessed with demonstrating that he speaks English, long the province of the upper classes.

Journalists, too, come off as craven and irresponsible. Looking down at the crowd outside the courtroom, Sen sees a huge, ravening animal, with “hundreds of eyes and appendages, all of which periodically reached out in the same direction as the animal grunted and roared.”

Fair enough! Except that the Talwars come in for no such skeptical treatment. From the first pages of Aarushi, Sen chooses to tell the family’s story as if he is looking through the eyes of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar (“Any reasonable background check on the Talwars tells you they were a snug, happy unit. This is the opinion of all those who knew them.”) When “hot tears” spring to Rajesh Talwar’s eyes, Sen seems to have felt the heat. Even their witnesses are described with admiration and respect (“an impeccably mannered and graceful octogenarian”).

The author who so meticulously documents the slime on the courthouse steps never pauses to explain why he came to trust the Talwars. Just because the prosecution was flawed doesn’t mean they didn’t do it.

Why does he take their word for it? He just does.

But this was always the problem with the Talwar case.

In the absence of key pieces of evidence, such as a murder weapon, everyone simply fell back on their natural sympathies. If your children went to schools like the one Aarushi did, it was easy enough to see her as an ordinary teenager, and to sympathize with parents pilloried by an irresponsible press. If you were, like the judge in the case, a farmer’s son, the kind who boasted that he had only watched a handful of movies in his life, their family life in Noida might strike you as distant and alien, slipped from its moral moorings.

This, of course, is why humans band together and form governments. We are subjective creatures, genetically wired to defend our kin. There is a need for institutions capable of establishing basic facts. Those institutions cannot function without the trust of all participants. Aarushi documents, more than anything, how tragically that trust is absent in India.

That Sen does not escape the trap of his sympathies is telling. After handily hollowing out the reader’s confidence in the state’s fact-finding, he offers little of substance to take its place, leaving us with the feeling that there is, in fact, nothing at all to believe in.

Ellen Barry is the South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times

Note: This review has been edited to correct a reference to Hemraj in the ninth paragraph as ‘Hemant’.

  • Vidhya Kumar

    A fabulous review, Ellen. What you have said about our allegiance to our sympathies is true: I found myself re-examining my own attitude towards the case.

    But I keep coming back to what, in my mind, makes up the core of Avirook’s book: The shambolic and mean-spirited investigation and prosecution of the case. There are gross errors, tampering of evidence, and witness after witness for the prosecution stood before the judge and said something very different from what they had said or written back in 2008. This case does not pass the smell test.

    What has distressed me most about this case is that these shenanigans have no repercussions. AGL Kaul has done this before
    and did it again in the Badaun case, but it appears he could take liberties with the law and trample due process and there was no consequence – no contempt of court, no internal investigation, nothing. Kaul may be dead, but this kind of thing will happen again unless there are changes.

    In the end, the burden was not on the Talwars to prove their innocence; it was on the prosecution to prove their guilt, which they did not do. The facts, made clear in this book, is that there is no physical evidence, no unbroken chain of circumstantial evidence, no credible motive and hence no case. There has been a miscarriage of justice, and the Talwars are wrongly imprisoned as a result. It’s hard not to be sympathetic.

  • Tara

    Decent review, but wonder if the reviewer got so annoyed by what she sees as writer’s bias in first two parts that she just skimmed through the rest. How is she saying writer offers no new evidence? That judge writing that judgment, that policeman who found hemraj’s body who says it must have been killed upstairs, the forensic experts – so shameless. What is that if not new evidence. So is writer taking the Talwars word for their innocence or is he saying he saw no evidence they were culprits?
    So in talking about biases in book did you get biased about what points to mention, Miss Barry?

  • Harry Lime

    All the references to the paan-chewing oafs, rotund bellies and the judge with great “command over English” do serve a purpose. They show the big gulf between the lumpen lower middle class which form the large part of our police and lower judiciary and people like Talwars and how that fueled the resentment against them.

    Overall I feel the criticisms in the review are not fair. Sen has mentioned elsewhere that all the statements he has attributed to Talwars are part of official record. He may personally trust them but the arguments in the book have no bearing on that. If there are any logical flaws in the way he has picked holes in prosecution theory and its witness’ statements, that I would like to know.

  • Kabir Bedi

    ASTONISHING! Ellen Barry, the South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, seems to think that its okay for the Talwars to languish in jail, even after reading Avirook Sen’s “Aarushi”. Guilt has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, and Sen’s book certainly exposes the deliberate distortions and errors in the prosecutions case, casting serious doubt on their methods, assumptions and “proof”. There should be public outcry against this miscarriage of justice, not pedantic book reviews.

  • Pavithra

    This is a balanced review!! Good job.
    And this line is a stand-out and precisely why many find it hard to believe the Talwars’ side of story – “The author who so meticulously documents the things on the courthouse steps never pauses to explain why he came to trust the Talwars. Just because the prosecution was flawed doesn’t mean they didn’t do it.”

  • Chankya

    Here is another critique of Sen’s book “Aarushi: attempt at another gloss http://fountainink.in/?p=7348 ” The writer Arpit Parashar has tracked the case since the beginning and blows holes in Sen’s arguments.

  • CrazyMongol

    Ellen Barry seems to have a bone to pick with Avirook Sen. Using so many words to make such an obvious point — dislike of Sen — Barry would do well to answer One Simple Question — Why would the Talwars kill their own daughter? What was the motive? What also needs to be looked into is why was the top investigator so openly malicious towards the Talwars? Did they have a history of confrontation? Was he looking to settle scores with the Talwars?

  • Harry Lime

    The key phrase here is “beyond reasonable doubt”. Has Talwar couple’s guilt proven beyond reasonable doubt? The obvious answer is NO. You can’t convict someone just because he or she is the most *likely* culprit.

  • Ajay Sharma

    If Ellen Barry accepts that the investigation into the case was “shambolic”, and that “Sen does a good job cataloguing investigative and prosecutorial errors”, then surely she must accept that the Talwars have been convicted and jailed for a double murder in which their involvement has not been proved. For Barry to then say, “Just because the prosecution was flawed does not then mean that they didn’t do it” is ethically and legally wrong. The burden of proof is on the prosecution, not on the Talwars, and not on Avirook Sen. Aarushi ‘s parents, must by a widely accepted legal standard, be considered innocent if not proved guilty.

    Secondly, Barry’s rather too neat “trap of sympathies” theory suggests that parents of children who “went to schools like the one Aarushi did” would naturally sympathise with the Talwars whereas a “farmer’s son” might consider them guilty. The reality is that there was little sympathy for the Talwars among the middle and upper classes. Shobhaa De for example called them monster parents. Most people, of any class, were mesmerised by the story put out by investigators and played out in the media. Sympathy for the Talwars largely existed, and indeed, still exists, only within a minority that has bothered to look at the evidence. That’s what the book does, too, and in a remarkably rigorous way. It’s sad that Barry, even while apparently accepting Sen’s deconstruction of the prosecution’s case, should then insinuate that his class biases led him to take the side of the Talwars.

  • Ajay Sharma

    If Ellen Barry accepts that the investigation into the case was “shambolic”, and that “Sen does a good job cataloguing investigative and prosecutorial errors”, then surely she must accept that the Talwars have been convicted and jailed without a case being made out for them having killed Aarushi and Hemraj. For her to then say, “Just because the prosecution was flawed does not then mean that they didn’t do it” is ethically and legally wrong. The burden of proof is on the prosecution, not on the Talwars, and not on Avirook Sen. Aarushi ‘s parents, must by a widely accepted legal standard, be considered innocent if not proved guilty.
    Secondly, Barry’s rather too neat “trap of sympathies” theory suggests that parents of children who “went to schools like the one Aarushi did” would naturally sympathise with the Talwars whereas a “farmer’s son” might consider them guilty. The reality is that there was little sympathy for the Talwars among the middle and upper classes. Shobhaa De for example famously called them monster parents. Most people, of any class, were mesmerised by the story put out by investigators and played out in the media. Sympathy for the Talwars largely existed, and indeed, still exists, only within a minority that has bothered to look at the evidence. That’s what the book does too, and in a very rigorous way. It’s sad that Barry, even while taking note of Sen’s deconstruction of the prosecution’s case, should then insinuate that his class biases led him to take the side of the Talwars.

  • fairtrial

    Please kindly read the book and then provide your opinions. cleaning the body etc are all what Kaul created to damn the parents. Kaul’s closure report has insinuations that talwar family needs to deal with for their life time.

  • fairtrial

    Good review. But any one who has followed the trial details cant help but sympathize with Talwars. Avirook’s attitude towards Talwars is probably because of lies and insinuations the CBI has created on them

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  • Ravi Kant

    I have read the Book. The Talwars have been framed by the Clueless CBI. The Investigations were a complete sham. Justice has not been done. As a viewer I always thought that Nupur never showed any remorse or her face was blank.the Book explains that her nature was like that. The Case was botched up by UP Police. Some very crucial proof of evidence was not taken cognizance of.

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  • R Joseph

    It was established during the trial that Dinesh Talwar (brother of Rajesh Talwar) had tried to manipulate the post mortem report.